Our Political Identity

Published by DonDavidson on

Do you believe climate change is real or a myth?

Do you believe the coronavirus is an existential threat or grossly overblown by the media?

We like to think that the way we answer those types of questions determines our political leanings. Actually, the reverse may be true.

In a recent book by Ezra Klein, entitled Why We’re Polarized (Avid Reader Press, New York, 2020), Mr. Klein points out that studies have shown that our political identity—conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican—impacts our political views on the issues more than we think.

For example, in a study where people were asked to solve a math problem involving the effectiveness of a skin cream, people with math skills had no problem solving the problem regardless of political affiliation. Then the same problem with the same numbers was given to people with one alteration—instead of measuring the effectiveness of a skin cream the problem addressed the effectiveness of handgun control. Math skills suddenly became irrelevant as a predictor of whether someone could successfully solve the problem. Instead, liberals got the wrong answer much more often when the numbers demonstrated that handgun control was ineffective—but had no trouble solving it when the problem was set up to demonstrate that handgun control was a viable solution for gun violence. Conservatives were affected in the opposite direction—they tended to get the wrong answer when the numbers showed that handgun control was very effective, and the right answer if the math showed that handgun control doesn’t work. Furthermore, the more partisan the individual, the more their ideology impacted their ability to solve the problem.

Did the federal deficit increase or decrease when Bill Clinton was president? If you were a highly partisan Democrat then, you knew that it decreased, but if you were a highly partisan Republican, you knew it increased. (It actually decreased.) What about inflation when Reagan was president? If you were a highly partisan Republican you knew that inflation went down during the Reagan years, but if you were a highly partisan Democrat you knew that inflation got worse. (It actually went down.)

Trial attorneys (I used to be one) are familiar with this phenomenon in a different context, which is why good trial attorneys almost never waive voir dire (questioning jury panel members) or opening statements. Why? Because studies have shown that many jurors—and perhaps most jurors—make up their minds how they think a case should be decided during voir dire and opening statements—before any evidence is actually presented. Then as the evidence comes in, jurors filter that evidence, focusing on and remembering evidence that supports the outcome they desire and dismissing evidence that doesn’t.

That is what we all do to some extent in politics. We filter information, focusing on facts and arguments that support our political position—or the political position of our party and/or our friends—and dismissing facts and arguments that undermine that position. The more partisan we are the more we do it.

Mr. Klein goes on to point out that this is entirely rational, if not inevitable, because our political identity is far more important to our well-being than whether we are right or wrong about the dangers of global warming. If we are strongly partisan, our political identity can impact relationships, social standing, and even our career. (If you are a lifelong Democrat, how would your Democrat friends react if you argued strongly against abortion? If you are a lifelong Republican, how would your Republican social circle view you if you took a stand in favor of lenient immigration policies and a quick path to citizenship for illegal immigrants?)

So the next time you have a political disagreement in person or on social media, be kind, polite, and gentle. The person on the other side of the disagreement is probably not stupid, irrational, or evil. They are just trying to protect their political identity—and they don’t even realize it. And the same is probably true of you, too.


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